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Is Chavez Cuba’s kingmaker?

DANIEL P. ERIKSON is senior associate for U.S. policy at the Inter-American Dialogue. He is co-editor of "Transforming Socialist Economies: Lessons for Cuba and Beyond."

JUST DAYS before Fidel Castro’s ailing health grabbed world headlines, the Cuban leader was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s surprise guest at a South American summit in Argentina. The two leaders traveled to the boyhood home of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the revolutionary icon. Chavez appeared moved by the visit. “For me,” he said, “it is truly an honor to be here, walking through history.” But Chavez has already joined Che where it counts most -- on billboards in Havana, where the Cuban government lauds its heroes.

Chavez is indeed a hero in Cuba, especially to its longtime leader. Over the last seven years, he has become Castro’s key economic benefactor and political partner. That relationship has stirred concern among U.S. policymakers that Chavez might meddle in the post-Castro transition.

There’s no question that he has sufficient leverage in Cuba to potentially influence the choice of the island’s next leader -- and his blessing will certainly be crucial to the next Cuban government’s success or failure. Whether he will wield his influence is unknown, and Cuba, of course, is a sovereign nation. But Washington’s worry that he will clearly reverses the conventional wisdom of only a few years ago, when the Venezuelan leader was seen as a creation of Castro.

The sources of Chavez’s potential leverage in Cuba’s transition are multiple. The most important is the “oil for services” pact that he and Castro signed in October 2000 and that continues to expand.

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Cuba receives more than 90,000 barrels of Venezuela crude a day at favorable rates of financing in exchange for deploying an estimated 20,000 doctors in Venezuela. Although the presence of Cuban doctors has deepened Chavez’s support among his country’s poor, the arrangement has yielded extraordinary benefits for Castro as well. Over the last six years, oil prices have more than tripled, from $20 to about $76 a barrel. Not only has Cuba avoided oil sticker shock, it has received a modest windfall. In 2005, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $2.5 billion, including $1.8 billion in Venezuelan oil sales to Cuba on deferred financing plans -- and nonpayment by Cuba is the norm.

Cuba and Venezuela’s deep security and intelligence cooperation in recent years also contributes to Chavez’s influence in Cuba. Chavez has embraced Cuban military doctrine, which includes the development of a 2-million-member Venezuelan reservist force to counter the perceived threat of U.S. aggression. New laws give Cuban officials wide latitude to conduct security activities in Venezuela, and Venezuelan military personnel have cultivated strong relationships with their Cuban counterparts. In the future, the specter of Venezuelan military intervention in Cuba -- even if farfetched -- further diminishes the already-negligible enthusiasm U.S. military officials have for a Cuban adventure.

Aside from billboards, the Cuban state media covers Chavez as if he were a member of Castro’s Cabinet. Cuban and Venezuelan flags often appear together at official ceremonies on the island, and the thousands of Venezuelans visiting Cuba for medical treatment or ideological training underscore the bond between the two leaders. Chavez’s elder brother, Adan, who until this month was Venezuelan ambassador to Havana, skipped many of the diplomatic functions other foreign embassies depend on for communicating with the Cuban government because he already had direct access to the highest levels of power.

During a visit to Caracas last fall, Carlos Lage Davila, Cuba’s vice president and a potential successor to Castro, raised eyebrows when he declared that “we have two presidents: Fidel and Chavez.” Hyperbole, yes. But he undoubtedly wanted to communicate his government’s gratitude for continued Venezuelan support.

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Finally, in addition to more than one-third of Cuba’s doctors, Venezuela is host to thousands of Cuban educators, sports trainers and security personnel. These individuals make up a significant percentage of the well-trained human capital that represents the crown jewel of Cuba’s socialist revolution. When Castro dies, Chavez will have to decide how to deal with these Cubans in Venezuela. If he sends them home, there may be no jobs for them, which could be socially destabilizing.

Washington has few tools to counter Chavez in Cuba. In a recent report on the island, the Bush administration concluded that “the current regime in Havana is working with like-minded governments, particularly Venezuela, to build a network of political and financial support designed to forestall any external pressure to change.” After Castro’s surgery was made public, the administration quickly ruled out any dialogue with the new Cuban government, instead continuing the sanctions policy that has left Washington without any effective leverage in Cuban affairs.

Still, Washington’s anxiety about Venezuela’s influence in a post-Castro Cuba illustrates how completely Chavez occupies center stage in U.S. policy toward Latin America. Over the last several years, the U.S. has elevated Chavez’s stature from that of a strictly Venezuelan political phenomenon to one of a continental menace whose maneuverings are responsible -- correctly or not -- for every development that goes against Washington’s interests. He, not Castro, is the presumed hemispheric boogeyman behind Latin America’s burgeoning left-wing movements.

Castro’s template for Latin American leadership has captivated the Venezuelan leader since his earliest days in power. Chavez has learned from Castro how to build a virtually indestructible power base at home while winning friends and admirers around the world.

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Most important, Castro has demonstrated that crossing swords with the United States can be a good career move. If the U.S. detects his hand in the selection of Cuba’s next leader, Chavez may be betting that roiling the U.S. will benefit him as well.


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